For years, it was clear that the Pac-12 seemed to be running away from USC as fast as it could. With the NCAA sanctions, Pete Carroll's departure and Larry Scott's arrival, there was a sense that the other 11 were over here -- and bad-boy USC was over there.
And were they ever happy about that.
Then on this very day, we learn that USC Pres. Max Nikias, already the chairman of the College Football Playoffs Board of Directors, has been named the chair of the Pac-12's CEO Group beginning July 1.
Which could be a very good thing right now. Any focus on the necessity and importance of USC leadership in the uncertain world of college athletics in the near future should be welcome.
Because for USC, and by extension whatever part of the Pac-12 that will be going forward with USC in what appears to be a turbulent and trying time for college sports requiring the re-arranging of media relationships and conference alignments, leadership from USC -- and the decision-making process that informs it -- will be crucial.
So as we note that just as with the USC baseball cap he's sporting in the photo above, Pres. Nikias is looking more comfortable these days in a world he didn't exactly grow up in. Maybe he got Sark wrong but he made up for it by listening to the right people and giving Clay Helton a chance to make a run at becoming USC's next John McKay.
Now we're not saying this is all on Pres. Nikias. Maybe the final Coliseum re-design decision will be singularly on him now that it's gotten as far down the road as it has. But there is history here for USC to learn from.
The big decisions in recent years -- the NCAA response, Pac-12 revenue-sharing and TV -- do not seem to have been fully informed by the kind of smart, collaborative, open decision-making process that it's going to take to get to the right place. And maybe could have prevented USC from getting to where the Coliseum re-design has gotten to now.
The word around USC through the years has been that the Athletic Department and its workings were in a place separate from the rest of the University -- by the choice of both sides. So when USC needed an ongoing, legal and otherwise, response to what has now been proven to be an unfounded and malicious NCAA campaign to take USC football down, USC never seemed able to marshal fully its considerable legal, public relations, professional and historical expertise.
That can no longer be allowed to happen. Even in the Coliseum re-design, the Athletic Department has seemed strangely at arms-length from where we are now. And when the architects described the process that got the design from here to where it is, the Athletic Department didn't get top billing as a stakeholder -- or even second billing.
That can no longer be the case for the difficult and institutionally intertwined issues USC and the Pac-12 are going to have to handle.
Does USC sit around with its conference colleagues like Oregon State and Washington State, as each of the Pac-12 schools fall $100 million behind the bottom programs in the SEC and Big Ten between now and the end of the league's TV contract in 2023-2024? Or does it do something?
And in doing something, in exploring where USC has to move in preparing to go where it must to stay competitive nationally with the likes of Ohio State and Michigan, Alabama and LSU, Texas and Oklahoma, does it move with the rest of a Pac-12 that for so long didn't want to much move with USC?
Or does it do what Oklahoma Pres. David Boren, the former U.S. Senator has been saying, which is that the Sooners program will not hesitate to do what is best for it whenever that becomes clear.
But is this USC program set up to do that? Recent history says no. The NCAA response, the Coliseum re-design, the Pac-12 negotiations all seemed to happen in something of an impenetrable bubble.
The problem for USC here is that to come up with the right answers, you have to know what the questions are. And that's our question.
Does USC understand what the questions are? Sure, it's not like these questions are the obvious ones where you're in the middle of it and still don't get it right. These are questions about a fast-evolving future that no one is certain about.
A year ago, the hope for increased TV money was that when it was the Pac-12's turn again, ESPN and Fox would treat the Pac-12 and the Trojans by extension, as generously as they have the Big Ten and the SEC. Now the question is whether ESPN and Fox will be in any kind of financial shape to treat anyone with any sort of generosity.
And with no partners, no DirecTV and 12 years between deals, the Pac-12 could be left farther behind than it will be next season when the deficit between each Pac-12 program and its Big Ten and SEC counterparts starts to be as much as $14 million per school per year.
And yes, we wish we had more confidence about the questions we have here but here they are:
*** What about Commissioner Scott? The CEOs just extended him four years as the highest-paid, and possibly lowest-performing, Power Five commissioner. What to do about him? Other conferences are coming up with answers. Doesn't he have to -- and soon?
*** Just a followup here. Scott has always said what an asset it has been for the Pac-12 to not get into a 50-50 deal with ESPN or Fox the way the Big Ten and SEC did and to keep ownership of its third-tier TV rights. But while Texas and Oklahoma benefit to the tune of $10 million to $15 million annually from their third-tier rights, USC and the other 11 have gotten nothing. Why couldn't USC ask if it could take back its own third-tier rights and see what it can get for them? More than Oregon State, you say? You bet. That's the idea. Might as well go there now.
*** Because that's the next step here. How does USC increase its own TV take when it's locked in with the likes of small-market Oregon State, Washington State, Utah and Arizona as it moves on? Is this feasible? Or does there have to be a decoupling sooner or later between USC and the programs that do not move the TV needle? Which is where the whole conference future is inextricably tied in with TV.
*** When does USC -- since the Pac-12 can hardly be expected to join in here -- explore the possibility of a new super-conference that would combine Pac-12 teams as the western half of a 16-team Pac-12/Big 12 merger -- a Big Pac conference with the eastern division centered around Texas and Oklahoma, a team most think will make its next move to the SEC. How does a USC/Pac-12 deal get there first in what could be a survival-of-the-fittest scenario?
*** At the same time, shouldn't USC also be exploring whether it, like Notre Dame, might be able to find a place to go it alone in football with a deal similar to Notre Dame's with NBC, while maintaining a half-schedule football commitment, as does Notre Dame with the ACC, where the rest of its program successfully resides. Could USC do that with the Pac-12? They'll still want to play USC and still want to come into LA to recruit and for their alums. USC might have an easier shot at pulling this off than Notre Dame did with the ACC.
*** Or is there something else out there in a world where Google and Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, could have as much a part as ESPN? And should this USC Athletic Department, on the sidelines too much it seems when the big decisions have come down, get back in the game? Get ahead of the game, actually?
The challenge for Max Nikias and USC starts with the Coliseum right now. That's a big deal and it will matter for a long, long time that USC doesn't get it wrong.
But it's not the only big deal out there. And no one would seem better situated than Pres Nikias to get this right for USC.
Nor is any program better situated to make an impact here. Just look at the weekend. Look at that overwhelming number of 850 prospects who showed up at the Rising Stars camp for a rising USC program. It's a statement of the power of USC.
Or how about the fact that no program in the nation can boast of both its major sports -- football and men's basketball -- going into 2017 as preseason Top 10. No one else is even close.
Which is why USC must get its act together now. The opportunities are great. The challenges are many. Nothing is certain.
But you have to commit to compete and that starts with figuring out the questions right away. Then you get everybody, inside and outside the bubble, to figure out the answers.
USC deserves nothing less.